Cross-country by car

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Botswana and Namibia are two of the most popular countries in Africa for a self-drive adventure. We outline an action-packed itinerary from Etosha Pan National Park to the Makgadikgadi. Words and photographs by Andrew St Pierre White.

Cross-country by carWhether you’re looking for big game or big skies, travelling by 4WD through Namibia and Botswana is the easiest way to discover both. The following two-week route will allow you to enjoy a taste of real adventure as well as some pampering, combining remote campsites with more comfortable places to stay. When you’re caked in dust and ready for a rest after several days on the road, a lodge is just what you need, yet when you feel the timetables are beginning to impinge on your freedom, the exhilaration of wild camping is the only effective treatment.

Etosha Pan National Park
The expedition begins in this beautiful, arid park in northwestern Namibia, with its extraordinary vistas and wide-open expanses of dusty nothingness. Etosha is a photographer’s paradise. The dazzling whites and greys of the sand and the vast cobalt skies make photos instantly recognisable, even if they show no landmarks at all.

Due to the barren landscape, game viewing is unlike that in any other park in southern Africa. There is a good chance of seeing rhino, and the elephant are plentiful but different here. They’re remarkably tall, with the shoulders of adult males averaging 3.5 to 4.2 metres (a good 50cm higher than elsewhere). Many are extremely old, and you may see some of the more senior bulls, often with battle scars and broken tusks, coated in pale-grey Etosha dust as they move in slow motion between the waterholes.

Accommodation here is in campsites and lodges. Okaukuejo Camp, in the west of the park, is the best value option, offering camping and well-appointed chalets, as well as good food. But the highlight is its waterhole, where wildebeest, zebra, jackal, hyena, gemsbok, springbok, ostrich, lion and even rhino come to play in the mud and drink. There’s perhaps no better way to relax than to sit beneath a thorn tree watching the sun set behind the animals. Just conjuring up this image in my mind makes my heart yearn for another African adventure.

Some claim that wildlife sightings are better towards the east of Etosha, but this is the case only in the dry season (June to November). Most of the high-end lodges are concentrated in the east for this reason. One such haven is Onkoshi, a set of timber and tent structures on the edge of the great pan, overlooking the endless plains. Whether the ground is dry or waves are washing under the chalets, the vistas are extraordinary from the private verandas, and animals often wander right past the lodge. Befitting such a superb place, the food is excellent and the service as good as anywhere in Namibia — which is to say, of a very high standard. If you’re on a tight budget camping is also available in the east — at Namutoni, Etosha’s most well-known rest camp, which has a curio shop and a general store.

Caprivi Strip
The next stop along the road to Botswana is Caprivi, the long stretch of land fought over by all sides during the 1980s bush war. This is the last part of Namibia to be developed for tourism, so it still has some hidden gems for the wild camper. It is one of the few remaining places where you can camp among the animals without having to pay absurdly high park fees.

From Etosha, drive east on the B8. Popa Falls Resort and Restcamp on the Okavango River is a good overnight stop, offering lodging and camping. The falls themselves are nothing more than a set of rapids — nice, I’d say, nothing more, nothing less. It’s just a convenient stop-off on your way to your remote camp spot. The route then takes you further east to Kongola, where you have the last chance of buying any forgotten essentials before heading into the bush. The C49 goes south and then east, passing through Mudumu National Park and Nkasa Rupara (formerly Mamili) National Park. Both have private lodges but the region is best experienced by camping. My favourite spots are south of the town of Sangwali. Fees must be paid at the entrance, but these are modest.

You must be self-sufficient as south of Sangwali there is nothing but wilderness. The road becomes a narrow bush track and crosses numerous rivers. Unlike other parks, you can pitch your tent anywhere. There are no campsites or ablution blocks, but that’s just the way I like it — and it is so rare these days. I doubt this freedom will last, so take advantage of it now.

If wild camping isn’t for you, I would recommend Mazambala Island Lodge, on an islet in the Kwando River. It has 16 bungalows, including two family units, and specialises in boat safaris on which you will see elephant, buffalo and plenty of birds in the marshy plains.

Chobe National Park
From Nkasa Rupara National Park, continue east across the border to Chobe. For animal encounters, nothing quite matches Botswana’s third-largest park. You can enjoy it on a houseboat, camping or in one of the gorgeous (but expensive) lodges.

Spending a night on one of the Chobe Princess Safariboats (formerly Ichobezi) was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in my forty-odd years of southern African travel. The boats have four double rooms, the food is as good as any of the top lodges and the ambience better by miles. At night you park on a riverbank from where you can spy on elephant, hippo, crocodile and lion, not to mention the famous Chobe birdlife. If you want to pitch your tent, the best spots are at Ihaha, Savuti and Linyanti campsites. Accessed from Kasane, these need to be booked at least a year in advance in the high season (May to September).

There are very few tarred roads in Africa where one still has a good chance of seeing big game, but the road south from Kasane to Nata is an exception. It runs through the Sibuyu Forest Reserve, and to the east lies Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Wildlife has free access and often wanders across the road. If you want to do some more wild camping, take the border road at Pandamatenga. This narrow track heads east off the main road, where the landmark is a red-and-white tower set back half a kilometre from the road, and winds south, close to the Zimbabwe border. It crosses several pans that make wonderful camp spots. When the pans are wet, animals swarm here. But beware of driving on the pans as you can easily get stuck. This track does not appear on ordinary road maps, but you will find it on InfoMap and Tracks4Africa.

Makgadikgadi Pan
As far as I’m concerned I have left the best until last. Those who have watched my television shows will know of my love of the Makgadikgadi Pan. In a web interview the studio audience once asked the Top Gear presenters Clarkson, Hammond and May the following question: “What location in all your travels was the most memorable?” The unanimous answer was “Kubu Island in the Makgadikgadi.”

I was not remotely surprised. A small piece of land on the western shores of Sua Pan, Kubu is the most visited spot in the Makgadikgadi. Words fail to conjure up the beauty of this oasis filled with baobab trees, but if I had to describe it, terms such as mystical, ethereal, desolate and otherworldly come to mind. The track to Kubu from the main Francistown to Maun road is not easy to follow. But if you get lost, just keep driving south. Every route eventually leads there. But there’s somewhere even better than Kubu. Due south of the island, about ten kilometres across open pan, is a pair of islands. Those who know they exist call them the South Islands. To get there, an unmarked track from the west circumnavigates miles of tussocky grass, offering a modicum of safety amid the cloying mud, but in the end you have to hazard a pan crossing. No tracks remain visible after the rains so you must pick your own path, and the heat haze makes it quite difficult to see the islands, which are only visible with binoculars from the height of the roof rack. Furthermore, they’re only accessible from July to October and when there has been no winter rain.

If the conditions prevent you getting there, don’t feel too defeated. The saltpan is an incredible moonscape in its own right. Of the five times I have attempted the crossing, I’ve reached the South Islands only twice, but it’s worth a try just to see those tiny dots, where yellow grass grows between grey rocks and thousand-year-old, deep-red baobab trees, in a sea of blinding white. It is the most extraordinary place I have ever been. I would recommend two days at least in the Makgadikgadi to see both Kubu and the South Islands.

After a two-week adventure cruising along remote tracks, getting lost in the wilderness and enjoying magnificent sunsets and game viewing, Namibia and Botswana will forever hold your heart captive.

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Safari Planner
• Getting there  Fly to Windhoek with South African Airways, Air Namibia, British Airways or Ethiopian Airlines and hire a 4WD from there. Alternatively, you could lengthen your journey by driving from Cape Town or Johannesburg. Plenty of operators specialise in self-drive, including Drive Botswana, Avis and 4XOverland.
• What to pack  Any good company will send you off with a ‘fully equipped’ vehicle, but in addition you should carry the following: mosquito repellant, zip-lock bags (everything in the fridge must be bagged), a fly swatter, a dustpan and brush, head torches, gloves for collecting firewood and water purification tablets. Most importantly, be sure to take a good GPS with InfoMap or Tracks4Africa installed. Ordinary road maps don’t have the necessary detail.
• When to go  Between May and August the days are warm and the nights mild, and there is little chance of rain. However, to drive on the Makgadikgadi Pan you need to visit between July and October. September and October are great months for game viewing in both Botswana and Namibia, but expect it to be hot, dry and dusty. From November to March the rains break and the bush becomes lush, but it’s not much fun if you’re camping. At this time of year the tracks through the southern Caprivi may be blocked.
• Health  Before your trip, visit your local GP or travel clinic to find out which vaccinations you need and the best antimalarials to take.
• Further reading  Bradt Guide to Namibia (5th Edition) by Chris McIntyre; Botswana Safari Guide (4th Edition) by Chris McIntyre

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3 More southern African road trips
• Botswana: Nata to Chobe National Park  
Travel through dense and beautiful bush on this popular road trip, which takes in Maun, Moremi Game Reserve and Savuti, stopping off to spy on plentiful big game along the way.
Distance: 465km (two to three weeks)
• Namibia: The coast  
Drive the length of the country’s wild shoreline, all along the Skeleton Coast and past the exquisite region of Kaokoland.
Distance: 1570km (two to three weeks)
• South Africa: Cape Town to the Transkei  
Cruise along one of the world’s most scenic coastlines, combining big game and cosy lodges with remote beaches.
Distance: 1241km (two to three weeks)

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